For my birthday, my sister’s boyfriend gallantly lugged all the way from California a pre-publication copy of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, “REAMDE”. At just short of a thousand pages, it must have taken a fair chunk of his luggage allowance, and like a 3-hour movie, you can’t help but feel that a book that long might have benefited from a stricter editor. Certainly, Stephenson’s love of technical detail, and tendency to throw all his ideas into one pot, is very much in evidence. And yet I found myself utterly unable to put it down all the way through.
After an exhausting week’s reading, I found that I had reached half-way through the book, but only a week of action had taken place. Actually, that’s not quite true, as there’s plenty of words spent on background information, including one particularly awkward flashback to fill in the back-story of a newly introduced character. Not that the passage itself isn’t enjoyable, but since we don’t meet the character in the present tense until we know her entire history, it feels a bit like Stephenson is saying “oh, sorry, there’s something I meant to mention earlier; don’t worry, I’ll get back to the action in a minute, you’ll see”.
And in a sense, that is this book’s main flaw: there are simply too many stories and ideas crammed together, which might have been better left to stand on their own merits. The online world of T’Rain, for instance, is a brilliant piece of SF invention, and the politics surrounding it would have made an intriguing novel – but this is not that novel, so Stephenson hurriedly tidies the sub-plot away to make room for the real action.
And what action! I’ve never read a book involving so many guns (or at least, so many guns given such prominent and specific descriptions — Stephenson jokingly acknowledges one Deric Ruhl as “ballistics copy editor”), but nor have I read another book which concludes with a chase involving a woman being chased by a bunch of jihadists, being chased by an IT entrepreneur and a Chinese peasant, being chased by the rearguard of the jihadists, being chased by a secret service agent, being chased by a mountain lion. The action scenes, and the tangled webs which bring together its motley cast, are the real focus of this book, and they work brilliantly.
Apart from the sheer quantity of prose, there are other signs that this book is not as carefully edited as it could be. I read recently that Jasper Fforde uses the scrollbar and find facility on his word processor to check that he hasn’t left key concepts or characters unmentioned for too long; had Stephenson used the same technique, I wouldn’t have been nearly as lost when he suddenly reintroduced the nickname “Dodge” after consistently referring to the character as Richard for about 800 pages. A similar slip has a character recognised as “Olivia” after making great play, some 200 pages earlier, of her refusal to give out that name.
My final criticism would be that having introduced a deliberately diverse range of characters, thrown together by fate in the strangest combinations, Stephenson insists on arranging them neatly into romantic pairs. A bit of sexual tension, and some romantic motivation, help drive the story along, and maybe I’m just being cynical, but having nearly every character end up with a love interest seemed more unbelievable — and unnecesary — than all the other coincidences in the novel.
But these are minor niggles, and are almost forcibly overwhelmed by the twisting drama. If you start the book expecting a novel about near-future cyberspace politics, you’ll enjoy the first couple of hundred pages, then find yourself lost; if you expect an action-packed thriller, it will be the other way around. Maybe, if you’re a die-hard thriller reader, you’ll find it fails to live up to that genre. But maybe, like me, you’ll find it an immensely enjoyable romp, but reach the end feeling that the parts of the mixture are not quite blended.